As a new viewer to the reality TV show “My Strange Addiction” (TLC) I wasn’t sure what to expect from the first few episodes of season six of the series, which debuted in 2010. I know, though, that I wasn’t expecting men dressed up in rubber doll suits (known as “maskers” within their community) or a woman who is “addicted” to looking like Pamela Anderson. The most confusing part of watching “My Strange Addiction” (MSA) was not trying to wrap my brain around the desire to disguise oneself, or a seemingly irrational attraction, but instead thinking, What does any of this have to do with addiction?
While addiction can take many forms that don’t necessarily have to do with substances, addictive behavior has some universal traits, namely the inability to stop the behavior despite negative consequences and an interference with other aspects of the addict’s life (job, family, etc). In many of the “MSA” episodes these telltale signs of addiction are conspicuously absent. Though the maskers mostly keep their habit a secret, finding companionship through online forums for other maskers, in the show none express a desire to stop dressing up, nor do they mention ways in which their behavior has negatively affected their lives. Aside from Patrice (more on her below), none of the “addicts” in the episodes I watched seemed to be anything but happy with the lifestyle they have chosen. If the maskers have one regret, it’s that they can’t be more open about their desire but, based on the show’s depiction of these men (and of course as viewers we have no idea what might have been edited out, if anything), the maskers are no more addicts than men who dress in drag or anyone who’s seriously into cosplay (costume play).
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t spend an hour watching dudes who encase themselves in rubber suits and say things like, “That’s not just a 70-year-old man in [the doll suit]…that’s me, that’s me inside that female,” and think, This is totally common behavior; I see grown men hanging out as life-sized dolls all the time. There were some very unsettling things about the episode — about all three episodes I watched, in fact.
But finding something abnormal or unsettling does not an addiction make. I’m not a psychologist, nor a trained specialist in addiction or mental health, so I couldn’t say what the factors are at play for someone to want, or need, to take refuge inside a rubber doll suit. Is it a sexual fetish? A form of escapism? Possibly a bit of both. As an addict myself, however, I didn’t see my addict self reflected in the men inside the rubber casings.
Clearly, the show is using the term “addiction” loosely, and to the point of inaccuracy. This was confirmed when I saw the second episode of the current season, in which we meet Linda, a 56-year-old woman who identifies as objectum sexual (a sexual attraction to an inanimate object). In Linda’s case, she is spiritually (though not legally) married to a broken “Skydiver” carnival ride named Bruce. Bruce — beam upon beam of steel, “living” in Linda’s backyard — is lovingly caressed by her as she explains her relationship with him to the camera.
In the same episode we meet Patrice, who has an addiction to eating bricks. This is where it becomes clear how much the show’s producers let a desire to shock the audience supersede a commitment to an accurate depiction of addiction, even a strange one. The only thing connecting Linda and Patrice is the fact that they both engage in a behavior a mainstream audience (myself included, I admit) finds bizarre.
How these two women engage in this behavior, however, and the impact it has on their respective lives, are excellent examples of what addiction is and also what it isn’t. Patrice does not want to stop eating pieces of brick, but she and her husband worry that she might be causing long-term damage to her body. At her husband’s suggestion, Patrice agrees to see a doctor about her habit. Though I’m not a brick eater, when I was drinking I put some pretty repulsive and damaging liquids into my body. And when the doctor told Patrice that she was likely hurting her health and asked her to try to stop eating bricks for two weeks, it was like looking at myself seven years ago. Though Patrice barely moves and tries to keep her face unreadable as she listens to the doctor, I could see the pain, fear and disappointment in her eyes. I saw someone who was both terrified and desperate to stop her behavior. I saw her weigh the fear of what she might be doing to herself with the fear of not being able to satisfy her craving. I saw someone promise a loved one that she would do everything to stop her addictive behavior, only to creep back to it once the lights were out. In Patrice, I saw an addict; I saw myself.
Does it matter if “MSA” muddies the water between portraying bona fide addictions and behaviors that are, instead, extreme, marginal and perhaps simply strange? By showing people with habits on the fringe (and beyond) are we looking at just fetishes (even hobbies) — or something more serious, on the order of mental disorders? Perhaps worst of all, in a time when the very definition of addiction is vigorously debated, does a TV show like this not only marginalize more extreme behaviors in a voyeuristic freak show context, but also lump addicts into the mix?
These aren’t just semantics. Addiction destroys lives. Linda’s feelings for Bruce are no more dangerous to her or her loved ones than her love for a human being would be. It’s strange, to be sure – and it’s likely that Linda’s emotions and behavior are indicative of some psychological abnormality. But at least as portrayed on “My Strange Addiction” it’s not addiction. Psychological abnormalities aren’t always harmful, after all. TLC has the opportunity (if not the responsibility) to show its viewers that all addictions, at their core, are comprised of the same inner workings of the brain. Instead, it conflates addiction with a multitude of other issues and reinforces the notion that any habit that deviates greatly from the norm — even if it’s totally harmless — should be considered destructive.